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The Intentional Flooding of America's Heartland 477

Posted by timothy
from the best-laid-dams dept.
Hugh Pickens writes "Joe Herring writes that sixty years ago, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began the process of taming the Missouri by constructing massive dams at the top to moderate flow to the smaller dams below, generating electricity while providing desperately needed control of the river's devastating floods. But after about thirty years of operation, as the environmentalist movement gained strength throughout the seventies and eighties, the Corps received a great deal of pressure to include specific environmental concerns into their Master Water Control Manual, the 'bible' for the operation of the dam system, as preservation of habitat for at-risk bird and fish populations soon became a hot issue among the burgeoning environmental lobby. The Corps began to utilize the dam system to mimic the previous flow cycles of the original river, holding back large amounts of water upstream during the winter and early spring in order to release them rapidly as a spring pulse. 'Whether warned or not, the fact remains that had the Corps been true to its original mission of flood control, the dams would not have been full in preparation for a spring pulse,' writes Herring. 'The dams could further have easily handled the additional runoff without the need to inundate a sizable chunk of nine states.' The horrifying consequence is water rushing from the dams on the Missouri twice as fast as the highest previous releases on record while the levees that protect the cities and towns downstream were constructed to handle the flow rates promised at the time of the dam's construction."
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The Intentional Flooding of America's Heartland

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday June 26, 2011 @08:39AM (#36575464)

    And you're dammed if you don't.

  • by HangingChad (677530) on Sunday June 26, 2011 @08:46AM (#36575490) Homepage

    Sen. Blunt characterized the current flooding as "entirely preventable" and told reporters that he intends to force changes to the plan.

    Given the volume of water the Corps is trying to manage, that statement is unbelievable hogwash. Ignorance that goes far beyond the people who try to argue "intelligent design" has a scientific basis. It reminds me of the attempts to blame poor neighborhoods for the mortgage crisis, even though the overall default rate in poor, minority neighborhoods was lower than upper-middle class white neighborhoods.

    Couldn't have anything to do with snow pack and rainfall being over double the norm, it's got to be those dang environmentalists.

    Using natural and man-made disasters to demigod your political opposition. We really have turned into a pathetic bunch. This tripe doesn't belong on Slashdot.

    • by belthize (990217)

      Whether intentional or not I really like the use of demigod there (demagogue).

    • by Required Snark (1702878) on Sunday June 26, 2011 @03:48PM (#36577890)
      By the way, who is this bozo Herring? i looked him up on Google, and all I got was "Author, Husband, Father, Grandfather and avid golfer. Rabid Husker football fan as well. I'm a proud Constitutional Conservative in the mold of Reagan."

      So his credentials are that he is a "Constitutional Conservative". No civil engineering or technology background? Did he ever work in water management? I did find books on Amazon on wildlife management by Joe Herring from 1962, so that info is about 50 years out of date. It's not clear if this is the same guy. As far as we know, he has absolutely no meaningful qualifications.

      So this is an opinion piece based on political ideology, not facts. I have observed that when died in the wool conservatives make arguments about technical subjects, they are completely fact free. Why do they need facts, when their political philosophy tells them that their uninformed opinion is God's absolute truth?

      This flood has similar characteristics to large wildfires. We know that there are "natural disasters" that overwhelm any attempt at human control.We also know that human intervention can make these events worse. "Protecting" forests by suppressing natural fires makes larger more destructive fires inevitable. Farming and flood control alter the landscape, and certainly have an impact on these large rare events.

      I'm not familiar with flooding, so I can't comment on the impact of human intervention on this disaster. I do know that Herring says nothing about the issue, but is using this as a cynical opportunity to blame environmentalists (i.e. damn hippies). His piece is political propaganda masquerading as a rational critique. It's reasonable to have this on Slashdot, but don't pretend that it's objective or has any factual contents.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday June 26, 2011 @08:53AM (#36575524)

    I've read several articles from this site forwarded by a friend. The articles were biased, used slippery slope logic, etc.

    Now they are leveraging slashdot to boost their Google ranking.

    Editor, please?

  • Flood plain (Score:5, Insightful)

    by the_raptor (652941) on Sunday June 26, 2011 @08:53AM (#36575528)

    If you don't want to get flooded don't live on a fucking flood plain.

    Systems built around "average" rainfall will fail eventually because the climate is NOT stable on a year to year basis. You either build levees and dams for a once in a thousand years worst case scenario or you accept you will get the occasional massive flood that overwhelms systems built around "average" rainfall.

    What actually happens is the dams and levees get built to handle the last major flood. That plan failed in Queensland Australia at the beginning of this year.

    People need to accept that they don't have absolute control over their lives. Nature happens.

    • Re:Flood plain (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Anubis IV (1279820) on Sunday June 26, 2011 @04:04PM (#36577980)

      If you don't want to get flooded don't live on a fucking flood plain.

      I'd like to add the following advice for Americans who are trying to figure out where they should live in order to avoid disasters and dangerous environments:
        Don't live near any of the many active volcanos, since they may erupt violently and unexpectedly.
        Don't live near Yellowstone National Park, the San Andreas Fault, or anywhere else that's even remotely close, since "The Big One" could come any day.
        Don't live near any form of major geologic activity, in fact, since it may do something.
        Don't live in the southwest or Texas, since the heat easily gets over 100F on a regular basis, sometimes much higher.
        Don't live north of the Mason-Dixon line or in the Rockies, since you may face blizzards, snowstorms, or other wintry conditions.
      Don't live in Alaska, Washington, Oregon, California, or Hawaii, since you may get tsunamis.
        Don't live within 100 miles of the Atlantic, Pacific, or Gulf coasts, since you may have hurricanes.
        Don't live anywhere in the central U.S., since it's predisposed towards tornados.
        Don't live near a river, bayou, swamp, lake, creek, wetland, canal, bay, marsh reservoir, estuary, or any other form of water, since it may flood.
        Don't live near any major cities, since they are targets for attack and house industrial facilities that may explode.
        Don't live far away from major cities, since the commute will contribute to global warming which may kill our children's children.
        Don't like in North Dakota, since it's North Dakota.

      I don't know why more Americans don't follow these simple guidelines to avoiding disasters. The way everyone lives here, you'd think that risk was a normal part of life!

  • Blame the developers (Score:5, Interesting)

    by KKBundy (2310464) on Sunday June 26, 2011 @08:58AM (#36575552)
    Yeah. Yeah. Well I happen to live in Bismarck, one of the cities currently flooding. Although I sure they would have done things differently now, they have always warned this town that this was a possibility. Every time a huge development went in down by the river, the Corps was against it, but money talks and the city and county commissioners approved the measure, drooling over the taxes they'd get from million dollar houses on 150,000 dollar lots. I mean these people built several peninsulas of land out into the river so everyone could have water access. They took a great wetland area next to the river and forced its destruction through the meetings. This has happened on dozens of occasions, and now they are all yelling at the Corps. The Corps has constantly taken heat for the dam being too empty the last few decades and not considering tourism. The meetings have been rancorous to say the least. I'm not a big Corps fan having been in a bit of trouble with them myself (camping while canoeing on corp land) but let's put the blame where it really lies. With the developers who masterminded restructuring a river for their own profits. The Blessed Atheist Bible Study @ http://blessedatheist.com/ [blessedatheist.com]
    • by drinkypoo (153816)

      One of the basic tenets of building is that you don't do it on a flood plain. Yes, that means that vast portions of the midwest are basically only suitable for temporary dwellings. There's nothing wrong with that. Population densities are low anyway.

      Whole cities which lie entirely on a flood plain are dumb.

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Every time a huge development went in down by the river, the Corps was against it, but money talks and the city and county commissioners approved the measure, drooling over the taxes they'd get from million dollar houses on 150,000 dollar lots.

      I have observed that many times, real estate developers and county or city commissioners are one and the same - or at least closely tied together.

      Most of the time on the local level, people who go into public office are doing so to help their personal and business interests. Most of my local politicians up to the state level are business people - and it's unsurprising, to me anyway, the things that business gets away with.

  • by jonpublic (676412) on Sunday June 26, 2011 @08:59AM (#36575560)

    Hmm, the american thinker article seems pretty trollish, utilizing descriptions that I would generally find in political hate speech, blaming environmentalists for the flooding. The articles point isn't to find root cause, but to spread hate at environmental groups.

    A quick google search reveals that the american thinker is indeed a conservative online magazine. I would hope that folks realize there is a war of information out there between extremes of the political spectrum and that we are better off not spreading those words of hate. The extremists are always going to be looking to enlist you in their war, by claiming the other side is outrageous.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Kizeh (71312)
      I read (http://www.rapidcityjournal.com/news/article_224526f0-9af5-11e0-84b8-001cc4c03286.html) that some of the main drivers for the elevated water levels were the shipping and fishing industry that lobbied their demands into the manual. Oddly enough, I suppose the fishing and tourism industry have largely similar interest as the "environmentalists" as far as the water levels. Still, original sounds indeed like conservative propaganda being propagated on people's misery.
      • by jmorris42 (1458) * <jmorris.beau@org> on Sunday June 26, 2011 @11:03AM (#36576272)

        > I suppose the fishing and tourism industry have largely similar interest as the
        > "environmentalists" as far as the water levels.

        Somebody didn't read the article before opening their hole. The shipping industry hates the green river management because it makes the river unsafe for navigation for large parts of the year. The original design called for enough flow to allow shipping year around. The greens want the river to flood in the spring (just not enough to bust levees, that was a mistake caused by their policy not the policy itself... at least as stated) and run low later in the year to follow natural patterns closer. To ensure a spring flood they held back too much water during the winter and when the spring rains and snow melt came stronger than expected they lacked the capacity to hold all of the water, forcing them to release at rates the levees could not hold back from the towns downstream. That is the charge against the Corps in a single sentence and it is pretty sound.

        The mission of the system was changed in ways it was not designed for and no attempt was made to remake it to handle the new mission it was given. Failure was a given at that point just as certainly as when NASA ignored the manufacturers warnings about the thermal specs on Challenger's O-Rings.

      • by NeutronCowboy (896098) on Sunday June 26, 2011 @11:54AM (#36576572)

        The problem is that the MWCM was rewritten from basic flood control to include several competing targets: flood control, tourism, shipping, fishing, and water quality and environmental protection. The end result is that the ACE is now permanently under fire for not satisfying someone's pet condition, and they can't possibly win.

        The hard truth is that whatever is being built is being built to match certani scenarios, whether it is the 100 year flood, the 100 year earthquake, or something similar. It cannot possibly be built to account for the absolut worst case scenario that could happen. And when something in that range happens, then, well, we're fucked.

        Unfortunately, in the US, it seems that no one is able to accept that, and instead concentrates on scoring points for their ideological team. This article and the reaction of various politicians is the perfect example of it. The ACE is doing a thankless job with little funding and having to hit mutually exclusive targets, and what do we get? Demonization of them and various political groups.

        To the writer of the article and the politicians trying to exploit this for gain: fuck off.

    • by JWW (79176)

      The American Thinker is conservative. But it is an undisputed fact that the Corps has been playing politics with their river management policies for decades. This does need to be reviewed.

      • They have to 'play politics' with river management (and everything else). It's the nature of the beast. There is no law that says the Corps gets unlimited funding to do whatever they want for as long as they want (otherwise the whole country would be paved over). This sort of thing has to happen. Given the ad hoc nature of the process, it's typically going to be a kludge - just like here. Competing goals won't be met. People will be pissed. Electrons will be spent willy nilly.
      • by rrohbeck (944847)

        There are rules and even laws that tell the Corps how to regulate the water supply. They do what they're told. The blame lies squarely on the politicians who wrote the rules. There has been plenty of criticism from the Corps about having to hold back too much water.

  • Perhaps if they had not been holding back water for future electricity generation, there would be adequate capacity for both the Spring pulse and flood control. Seems silly blame the fish for the water.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    Can be found here.. http://www.dnr.mo.gov/env/wrc/docs/MasterManualMarch2006.pdf

  • by jamie (78724) * Works for Slashdot <jamie@slashdot.org> on Sunday June 26, 2011 @09:14AM (#36575646) Journal

    Who the hell is Joe Herring and why should I trust anything he writes? Did Slashdot review his scholarship here and give it a stamp of approval, or was it just put up on the website, leaving it to the readers to decide whether it's B.S. or not?

    No qualifications or expertise are claimed for Joe Herring on the website. In fact no information on his background is given except that he is "from Omaha, NE." This is highly unusual for a publication that hopes to be taken seriously. We don't even know if that is his real name.

    We are left to judge the value of this Joe Herring essay by his previous contributions [americanthinker.com] and by the reliability and reputation of the website that publishes his work.

    Joe Herring is, in short, a right-wing nut.

    He claims all leftists [americanthinker.com] -- all! -- want to overthrow the Constitution: "The continuum on the left that ranges from the 'wouldn't it be nice if we all just smiled' types to the hardcore authoritarian communists may disagree about methods, but sadly, all agree on one thing: if their utopia is to come about, the Constitution -- and the form of government derived from it -- must be replaced with...something."

    He says the Nazis were left-wingers [americanthinker.com]: "The Left will not willingly lay claim to the true legacy of socialism, so we will have to hang it around their necks."

    He believes that the true goal of health care reform, renewable-energy subsidies, and regulations on Wall Street is for "the left" to seize power and exterminate half of the human race. Really [americanthinker.com]: "As the federal government asserts control over health care, energy production, and the financial markets, the trinity of power is within the left's grasp. Unless driven back from their goals -- and quickly -- the likelihood grows daily that more than four billion of our 'species' will be joining the table scraps and yard clippings on the compost pile."

    He thinks the problem with Politifact's [politifact.com] 2009 Lie of the Year, "death panels," is that the right wasn't lying hard enough [americanthinker.com]: "To describe this board as a 'death panel,' as Rush Limbaugh has, is to underestimate its power and misconstrue its purpose."

    And five minutes with Google reveals that American Thinker is a source that, shall we say, lends no additional credibility to Joe Herring's contributions. Take global warming as a typical example. They printed essays claiming to have found a "smoking gun" that disproves global warming (wrong [skepticalscience.com]). Then they found another single argument that by itself disproves global warming [americanthinker.com] (still wrong [skepticalscience.com]). They argue that global warming is a Nazi lie [americanthinker.com].

    This "intentional flooding" piece looks like yet another right-wing hit job on leftism. I would be happy to entertain the idea that misguided environmentalism is partially to blame for one disaster or another, but I would like to hear a reasoned argument from someone who's not a nut.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      Who Joe Herring is, is not the issue. It's not the messenger, it's the message. Unless you want to indulge in a lot of ad hominem arguments.

      Of course the message leaves something to be desired. But that is the important part, not whether he is a lawyer from New York, or a plumber from Milwaukee.
      • by jamie (78724) * Works for Slashdot <jamie@slashdot.org> on Sunday June 26, 2011 @09:42AM (#36575812) Journal

        If I'm being asked to trust what Joe Herring says because of who he is, then of course I need to know who he is. He doesn't present evidence to back up many of his assertions, he just writes stuff and hopes I'll believe it:

        The Missouri River Recovery and Implementation Committee has seventy members [moriverrecovery.org]. Only four represent interests other than environmentalism. The recommendations of the committee, as one might expect, have been somewhat less than evenhanded.

        Says who?

        This year, despite more than double the usual amount of mountain and high plains snowpack (and the ever-present risk of strong spring storms), the true believers in the Corps have persisted in following the revised MWCM, recklessly endangering millions of residents downstream.

        Says who?

        Whether warned or not, the fact remains that had the Corps been true to its original mission of flood control, the dams would not have been full in preparation for a "spring pulse." The dams could further have easily handled the additional runoff without the need to inundate a sizeable chunk of nine states.

        Says who?

      • by glwtta (532858) on Sunday June 26, 2011 @10:03AM (#36575940) Homepage
        I don't have time to read everything, and many "messages" can be safely ignored based on who the messenger is.

        Like this one, for example.

        Actually, I don't need to know who Joe Herring is in this case, the writing style clearly show that's it's written by someone with an axe to grind, and coming from a politically motivated position - I really don't need to wade through all that crap just in case he stumbled on a valid point somewhere.
      • by chrb (1083577) on Sunday June 26, 2011 @10:19AM (#36576030)

        It's not the messenger, it's the message.

        It's a little hard to take seriously a message from a web site that argues [americanthinker.com] that Hitler was a "green" and that "Nazi SS doctrine (was) an explosive concoction of eugenics and environmentalism loaded with eco-imperialistic ambitions that had devastating consequences on the Eastern Front in World War II." Seriously, what? The Nazi SS doctrine was environmentalism? Environmentalism and eco-imperialism were responsible for the Eastern Front in WWII [wikipedia.org]? Crazy.

      • by IICV (652597)

        Who Joe Herring is, is not the issue. It's not the messenger, it's the message. Unless you want to indulge in a lot of ad hominem arguments.

        Sorry. There are almost no citations in the article to back up his claims. That means that it is arguing from personal authority. Therefore, the personal authority of Joe Herring is of critical importance, because it is the only source of evidence provided to back up his claims.

        Joe Herring has no personal authority. Therefore, the article rests on no evidence.

        Ad hominem

      • by hey! (33014)

        It is perfectly valid to impeach the reliability of a information source when evaluating the credibility of what he says. When the mayor says don't come downtown because there's been a terrorist attack, it's not ad hominem to regard him as more credible than that homeless guy who talks to people who aren't there making the same claim. Ad hominem is a fallacy of distraction ; it's about bringing in irrelevant data (I hate the mayor, the mayor is a Republican, the mayor is a Jew, the homeless guy has a Ph

      • Who Joe Herring is, is not the issue. It's not the messenger, it's the message. Unless you want to indulge in a lot of ad hominem arguments.

        Eventually you can stop fact checking the schizophrenic homeless guy on the street corner.

        "Consider your source". While even a broken clock is right twice a day, you shouldn't be using a source which is consistently wrong since it'll more often than not be misleading. Now, if this is all true then this source should have no trouble finding a reliable source to verify and certify it.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      This is exactly right. The dams were NOT just built for flood control. They were built to generate electricity. When you empty out the reservoirs, you don't have any water to generate electricity.They were also built to allow navigation, and when you empty out the reservoirs you don't have water to sustain river flows for navigation. The claim that this was caused by environmental concerns is just wing-nut conspiracy theorist nonsense.

      But it will get repeated over and over again until it is treated as commo

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday June 26, 2011 @09:18AM (#36575670)

    "'Whether warned or not, the fact remains that had the Corps been true to its original mission of flood control, the dams would not have been full in preparation for a spring pulse,'"

    There's another aspect. Over time people have learned that if you completely moderate the annual flow of a river by flood control, the channels will silt up, whereas if you have a higher peak flow in the spring, the channels get flushed out. You may say "big deal, let them silt up", but allowing the channels to silt up means the channel itself has less capacity to contain the river's peak flows (less cross-sectional area), and there is a tendency for the bottom of the channel to get shallower, meaning that when the flood waters come, the levees on the banks are easier to overtop. Alternatively you can build those levees ever higher, the river bed silts up some, you build the levees higher again, and eventually the river gradient (slope) is reduced so much that when a levee failure does happen, the bottom of the river bed is well above the floodplain, and the whole thing drains out onto the floodplain even more catastrophically. This is what happens in some parts of China because of many centuries of levee building -- the river is perched high above the floodplain (e.g., the lower parts of the Yellow River [wikipedia.org]).

    Maintaining something that emulates the natural seasonal flow of the river in a moderated way is an important technique to maintain the system over the long-term in a more manageable state than if you adopt the principle to contain absolutely everything at all times and all circumstances. Peak spring flow flushes the system out. It's not a bunch of idealistic environmentalist/hippies constraining the engineers, it's the engineers themselves realizing the limitations of their previous approach, and that if they ignore what the river does over the long term, it will get harder and harder to control and eventually they'll lose the battle anyway. It's better to understand how the system works and adapt to it.

    In short, don't believe a politician knows how the hell to manage a river system, or that they care much about what their decisions today will mean 20 or 50 years down the line, rather than the next election. You'd think a former history teacher would have a sense of perspective on these things. Blaming it on "environmentalists" is just a cheap political ploy.

    • Silting doesn't only hurt the ability of the system to flow downstream, it also kills navigation - which is part of the new MWCM.

      The ACE was fucked from the start on this one.

  • by belthize (990217) on Sunday June 26, 2011 @09:21AM (#36575686)

    The blog/post/whatever-that-was implies a false dichotomy. Yes the original flood control dams were designed to control flooding (hence the name), yes subsequent environmental understanding caused the release cycle to be more pulsed than continuous. The solution isn't to choose between the two, the solution is to re-invest and rebuild portions to accommodate both.

    The mass funding of infrastructure improvements (bridges, interstates, dams, power) from the 1930's to 1960's was a good thing but we can't view them as a one and done process. They not only take maintenance they also need to be redone as they age and new understanding of their effects arise.

    We must start taking a longer view, if the replacement infrastructure cost of all of those things is 10 trillion dollars (or some other number) and their average life cycle due to aging or other factors is 50 years then we need to start replacing them on that cycle of 200 billion/year. Part of the problem is that so much infrastructure was placed in so little time (10 to 20 years) it's all coming due at once.

    Sadly we take a short term, one and done approach, we have a dam, why would we ever need to rebuilt it.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday June 26, 2011 @09:29AM (#36575744)

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Artificial_dwelling_hill
    An artificial dwelling hill ("Terp"), created to provide safe ground during high tide and river floods.
    In 500 BC it was for keeping there feet, food and livestock dry, but it should work for computers, wide-screen TV's and SUV's just the same.

  • Not the Corps Fault (Score:3, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday June 26, 2011 @12:08PM (#36576662)

    I live in North Dakota and my dad Travels to Montana often. There is water everywhere in ND and Montana. We have never, and I repeat, NEVER seen water anything like this. The rain and the snow pack these last two years have been incredible.

    The fields are so wet many farmers have simply not planted their crops. This is coming from an area that for the majority of my life has been about 1 inch of rain away from being declared technically a desert (and in the drought years in the late 80's it was under the 7 inches of precip for 12 months).

    Everything is flooding up here, the Missouri river, the Mouse River and all their tributaries. There is water being released from the Spillway on the Garrison Dam now. This is the spillway that was 1/4 mile away from the river on the river side just 5 years ago, this is the Spillway that had never been used since the Dam was built in 1953. I was just there a couple weeks ago. That river is full, and there is water coming out of the Rocky Mountains right now that is flowing more CFM than what they are releasing out of the Damn. This is as controlled as it can get.

    There used to be 8 ways to get to my parents house, right now there is 1 as the rest of the roads are underwater (and we are 50 miles from the Missouri river, this is just slews and low areas accumulating rain water). Areas that I have never seen water in are now 8 foot deep lakes.

    Just something to keep in mind. ND has been trying to get the Corps to hold back more water for over a decade as one of our main fisheries, the Missouri river, was down to the original river channel. The corps never listened and never held the water back, Mother Nature decided to give us all the water we could ever want, then she forgot to stop.

    I have been raised to hate the way the Corps treat the river all my life, but in this instance they are doing everything that can be done to save as much property and as many lives as they can.

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